Forest fires a major threat to Bhutan’s biodiversity

Despite stern legislation and public awareness programmes in place to
curb forest fires, still the problem persists as it tops the list of threats
to the country’s forest coverage. Forest fires are a major environmental
problem in Bhutan.
There were 36 incidences of forest fires in 2010 alone which burned up more
than 9162.81 acres of natural forests in the country.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Forests (MoAF) said the main causes of the
fires are burning of agricultural debris by farmers who do not follow the proper
procedures and guidelines.
Tandin Dorji from the forest fires management section of MoAF said farmers
do not have the proper equipment to battle forest fires. “They do not monitor
the debris burning and leave as it is, unattended and they do not suppress the
fire at the end properly and while there is wind blowing the fire is carried away
to the nearby places causing forest fires,” he explained.
The second most common cause of forest fire is due to children playing with
fire near the forest areas. The short circuiting of electric wires is also another
cause of forest fires in Bhutan.
Explaining about short circuits, Tandin Dorji said, “When an electric pole is
being step up, the electrician is supposed to clear the line corridor up to 6 meters
or else till 9 meters if possible. We had an understanding with the Bhutan Power
Corporation (BPC) that they would clear the line corridor to avoid forest fires,
but in many cases it is not happening.”
Mass awareness campaigns have been conducted on how to safely burn the
agricultural debris before the onset of the fire season.
Paro, Thimphu, Punakha, Wangdue Phodrang, Lhuentse, Trashigang, and
Bumthang are the districts in the country which are prone to forest fires.
The forest fire management strategy developed by the department of forests
and park services has incorporated both the beneficial as well as the harmful
effects of forest fires to the ecosystem, and the use of fire as an important land
management tool and recommended community based management of fire by
involving the local communities, volunteers, and religious leaders.
It is hoped that this innovative strategy of incorporating all possible tactical
options would be useful in managing forest fires in the country so that the
valuable forests, lives and properties of the people, important ecosystems are
protected as well as the communities can still have the opportunity to use fire
for their land management activities in the rural areas.
With the implementation of the strategies, the department would be able to
reduce the number of forest fires in the country and save many acres of valuable
forests in future.
Between 2010 and 2011, a total of 49 incidences were recorded with 10,139
acres of forest area consumed by fire.

Forest fire recorded in nine years
Year No. of Incidence Areas burn
2001 64 14644.16
2002 46 5425.99
2003 40 2711.21
2004 67 7965.51
2005 37 19580.683
2006 47 56280.747
2007 45 9617.17
2008 70 4501.33
2009 49 9162.81

The Environmental Impact Of The Cordyceps Business

The living standard of the country’s highlanders has improved through Cordyceps business every year, but it comes at a high cost, both social and environmental, a survey conducted by the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment (UWICE) revealed.

Despite the stringent monitoring in place with strict rules and regulations, officials from the agriculture department agree that there is high pressure on environment.

Director of the department of agriculture and marketing cooperatives (DAMC) Dorji Dhradhul said, “It is a serious concern for us and also for the ministry, but it is not possible to monitor with foresters in the field outnumbered by collectors.”

“We are trying to create awareness through educational program, but only a few seem to be convinced. If the issue gets serious then the ministry might have to revisit the rules and regulations like reducing the number, from three collectors from each household to one, in order to have less impact on the environment. Less collectors mean less impact,” the director added.

This problem is further compounded by growing problems of littering and it is felt that, if not unregulated and unmonitored, the impact from the collection of this highly priced fungus while helping improve livelihood will leave some of the last pristine alpine ecosystems of this planet transformed for the worse.

Every year, from mid May to mid June, the collection season for the Cordyceps begins in the high alpine environment and the extend of environment degradation was categorized in four which were degrading shrub lands, littered landscapes, changing grasslands, and associated forest degradation.

A study by UWICE found that more than 78% of collectors interviewed said that they used Rhododendron and Juniper wood for cooking during the period of Cordyceps collection. The extensive use of slow growing Rhododendron and Juniper wood as fuel also pose a risk of such shrub lands from getting decimated completely.

Fuel wood is scarce in the high altitude collection grounds which are above tree line. With just available wood being Rhododendron, Dwarf Juniper and Willow, which are harvested extensively leading to opening of the areas in the fragile environment. Such openings may accelerate the process of mass wasting, thereby leading to many ecological and environmental hazards.

Studies reveal that it takes nearly 169 years for Rhododendron aeruginosum to attain the base diameter of just 8 centimeters, with an annual increment of only 0.6 millimeter. The slow growth of Rhododendron coupled with huge extraction by the collectors is a big concern. It’s, however, known fact to the collectors.

Some of the collectors The Bhutanese talked to said that it should be made compulsory to stop burning wood and go for kerosene and LPG.

Garbage management is another concern as mostly plastic and bottles wastes are not disposed off properly. Collectors throw garbage either by the side of the stream rocks or underneath the rocks, which might be hazardous to both fresh water biodiversity as well as to the people living downstream.

To address this problem, some collectors have come up with suggestions to have a proper designated disposal site. Some also said that temporary shops at the site should be discouraged.

Changing grasslands was another issue affecting the environment. Cordyceps collection coincides with the time when the young shoots of grass start to grow and with people collecting Cordyceps trampling on the grasses, the grass quality decreases and so does the feed for the yaks.

Digging for Cordyceps at the site is also a concern since it not only disturbs the grassland ecosystem, but may also accelerate soil erosion.

The amount collected from the sale of the Cordyceps has increased the purchasing power of the highlanders. There is a trend of buying power chains in the communities, and this may lead to harvesting of more of timber for construction of house and roofing, and fire wood.

Chencho Dema/Thimphu

Cordyceps Face A Threat Of Extinction

The increased number of the Cordyceps collectors every year poses a threat to the sustainability of the resource.

A survey conducted by the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment found that the collectors were ignorant about the threat and also seemed least bothered by it.

An official from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests (MoAF) said,” The collectors are living with the notion that Cordyceps has been there before and will continue to be.”

“With such a notion, it could mean either the collectors are not concerned or they are trying not to voice concerns fearing the consequences of government policies banning its harvest in the future,” he added.

Only a few of the collectors have expressed concerns like the need to introduce a system which allows Cordyceps collections on an alternate years’ basis.

A 39-year -old man from Sephu, Wangdue Phodrang said, “Year by year we are not able to collect the amount of Cordyceps which we used to collect in the earlier years. I think government should intervene before the fungus vanish.”

Prior to 2004, harvesting of Cordyceps was allowed only in Lunana, but later on June 17, 2004, a Royal Decree allowed the yak herders stationed in high pastures to collect a limited amount of Cordyceps. There were also various measures in place to restrict the overall harvest which included a ban on collection during the months of Mid May to Mid June.

The policy of allowing only one person from a household was lifted in 2008, allowing three people from a household to engage in collections during the specified season.

Some of the collectors The Bhutanese talked to said illegal harvesting of the Cordyceps by the poachers from across the border is one factor posing as a threat to the sustainability of Cordyceps in Bhutan.

With many of the harvest sites of the Cordyceps being near the porous northern border areas of the Tibetan plateau, people from across the border were reportedly harvesting Cordyceps illegally in Bhutan.

Sighting of such poachers is not a surprise for the local collectors. Despite strict monitoring by the forestry and army officials, the trend seems to continue. In 2008, 13 Tibetan poachers were apprehended.

Cordyceps collection was legalized in 2004, and ever since then, the collectors have earned substantial income from the sale of the valuable and high in demand fungus. Government’s role has been found to be vital, especially in terms of creating awareness for sustainable harvesting practices.

Records with the Food Corporation of Bhutan (FCB) shows a total of 235.89 kilograms of Cordyceps worth Nu 169.60mn were transacted in seven different auction sites across the country in 2012.

The government earned a total royalty of Nu 1.65mn last year.

The highest price fetched per kilogram of Cordyceps was about Nu 1.2mn from Lunana while the lowest price was fetched from Tshento gewog in Paro which was Nu 51, 000 last year.

A total of 38 buyers were registered with the FCB to participate in the Cordyceps auction in 2012 after depositing Nu 50, 000 as security amount.

Empowering local communities for tiger conservation

With just about 3,200 tigers left in the world today, very soon the endangered species is likely to vanish from the face of the earth and live only in William Blake’s poem, like the dinosaurs that live only in stories today.
The future of wild tigers is bleak today as the surviving tigers are being poached across the forests of Asia to meet the demands of illegal tiger parts trade.

July 29 is globally marked as ‘Global Tiger Day’ and understanding the importance of the tiger in Bhutan, the Department of Forests & Park Services under the Ministry
of Agriculture and Forests (MoAF) celebrated this year’s Global Tiger Day with the theme, “Empowering Local Communities for Tiger Conservation” at Norbuling Middle
Secondary School, located in the buffer zone of Royal Manas National Park, a place also considered to be a hot spot for wild felids, particularly the tiger.

At a historic event held in St. Petersburg in Russia, the governments of Tiger Range Countries (TRCs) and conservation partners pledged their support to double
the remaining tiger population by the year 2022. TRC designated July 29 of every year as the Global Tiger Day.

In an effort to combat the pressing tiger issues, Bhutan along with 13 TRCs have been engaged to positively double the tiger populations by 2022, since the start of the tiger
year (lunar calendar) in 2010.

The tiger conservation effort is a national responsibility, and cooperation and coordination along similar efforts are made within the TRCs. Department of Forests & Park Services invited the Indian counterparts from across the border of Indian State of Assam, fourteen officials comprising of field director, wildlife managers, and scientist
and forestry officers joined the Bhutanese officials in observing the Global Tiger Day in Bhutan.

A cultural program by NFE and school children, interschool art and skit competition along with display of exhibits on tiger conservation and related activities were
showcased during the event.

The program was funded by the WWF-Bhutan Program, Wildlife Trust of India, and International Fund for Animal Welfare (WTI/IFAW), Bhutan Trust Fund for Environmental Conservation and Royal Government of Bhutan.

The governments of several TRCs face major challenges in tiger conservation due to habitat destruction and illegal trade in tiger parts. Bhutan’s conservation policy recognizes the co-existence of humans and wildlife with the exception
that this close co-existence is not without conflict, as tigers often prey on livestock, thereby inviting retaliatory measures from subsistence farmers. To protect the tigers, the government have began offering cash compensation to affected farmers through community based livestock insurance and alternative livelihood practices, often in the face of severe resource constraints within the government.

The four subspecies of the tiger, the Bali, Caspian, and Java tiger became extinct in the 20th century, and many scientists believe the fourth, the South China tiger, has also become extinct, leaving only five, the Malayan, Indonesia, Siberian, Sumatran and the Royal Bengal tigers alive today. Of the 3,200 tigers alive today worldwide, about 150 are located in Bhutan.